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Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Review

I regret not having seen Portrait of a Lady on Fire at Hyde Park Picture House prior to our current lockdown situation. With its intrinsic focus on sound, colour and the subtlest of facial expressions, I feel this film most likely benefits from the immersive experience of the big screen, which goes to waste in the living room. The film, set in the eighteenth century, is centred around the romance between commissioned painter Marianne and the subject of her work, Héloïse. The latter, expected to marry a male suitor who requires a portrait of her prior to the engagement, has previously refused to pose for a portrait, and as we witness the relationship between the two women unfold we are extremely aware of the looming inevitability of her marriage.

This film is certainly not for the impatient. The first act is slow and enduring, packed with long-lasting shots and slow pans, as well as minimal dialogue or action. This allows for a keen focus on the senses and the visual storytelling here was strong. At times, the only sound were brush strokes on canvas, the diegetic sound paired with static shots of the painting hand. This was surprisingly intriguing to me, as my ears became more and more tuned into the nature of the brush strokes and the impact they had not only on the emotion of the painter but the mood of the narrative as a whole. While I may seem to be focusing a great deal on a few small instances, it was interesting to feel such variation within an otherwise quiet opening.

Visually, a word that comes to mind is ‘angular’, in the sense that the first romantic encounter takes place in a cave, and the narrative revolving around the painting of Héloïse and long hours of posing in an upright position with her arms perpendicular to her body. Additionally, the context of the film is very obviously the fixed laws of sexuality and female expectation, of which there can be no bending of the final rules: Héloïse must marry a man. The visual and conceptual nature of the film therefore spoke of containment and the moments of expression found within it. The film’s dialogue on sexuality was, in my opinion, well navigated. It was not fantastical, as there was no rejection of patriarchal authority, which would have been unbelievable in the eighteenth century. But there was also no male-gaze-esque, forbidden-love fetishisation of female love which has been all-too-present in the film industry.

The first nude scene sees Marianne from the side, sat with her knees up in front of the fire. It was an explicit relationship between womanhood and fire, as expected, but while it was striking, it was not objectifying. Similarly, the sex scene was replaced by the suggestion of sex, told through a cut from an intimate moment to the pair waking up the next morning. This emphasised the romantic element of the sexual act, rather than placing the women in front of the voyeur for no good reason. Additionally, there was a great deal of focus on the strive for female agency within patriarchal dominance; not a single man appeared on screen until the last quarter. After a scene discussing Orpheus’s dooming of his lover, Eurydice, by looking back at him as he leaves Hades, Marianne argues that ‘he doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.’ But when we witness the goodbye between the two women, Héloïse tells Marianne to look back at her.

The study of the body and, more specifically, the face, was key. As a viewer, we are taken alongside the artist’s process of studying Héloïse, to the extent that I found myself analysing the angles and features of her face, too. This is why I feel this film must benefit so well from the big screen- the multitude of close-ups placed on the subtlest of facial expressions moved the narrative along just as much as the dialogue, which was only used when needed. As I’ve said, the refusal of the male gaze as a result made this study of the body non-objectifying, adding a more feminine approach. It was about knowing a person through their body rather than merely looking at it or using it for self-gain.

I find two notable faults with this film, the first being that it was quite drawn out. I admit that I struggle with films where visuals are prioritised over dialogue, however I feel I am not alone in my opinion that the problem here wasn’t that the film was boring- it never was-, but that the narrative lost its momentum at points. Furthermore, the ‘apparition’ scenes, in which Marianne turned to find Héloïse as some kind of spirit in her wedding dress, were bad quality. While I understand the sentiment of the haunting separation, of Héloïse in her blindingly bright wedding gown, it actually looked more like the Ghost of Christmas Past in the 1999 edition of A Christmas Carol and I found myself more amused than moved.

Overall, though, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is well worth watching. Its discussion of female love, contained sexual expression, and the female body were executed brilliantly. The mostly all-female cast was refreshing, and Noémie Merlant (Marianne) and Adèle Haenel (Héloïse) were moving, immersive and utterly attention-grabbing in their roles. I suggest spending a quiet afternoon watching this, and I’m sure it will mean something to everyone.

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